Gilded Serpent presents...

Helm Istanbul’da

Making Music in Turkey

Aya Sophia Mosque
Aya Sophia Mosque

by Ling Shien Bell
posted April 26, 2012

Sinan's House
Sinan’s family house

We discovered Turkish classical music through our friend Sinan Erdemsel. To the dellight of many music lovers, he has been coming to teach at Lark Camp in Mendocino, California, for the past 10 years. He comes from a long lineage of Sufi musicians, and his family house, situated on Ummi Sinan Street in Eyup, Istanbul, is also a shrine where many of his ancestors rest in peace.

Last summer at Lark, we told him about our recording project and he offered to help. The CD would feature various styles of Turkish music. Our friend Larry Klein, featured oudist in Helm‘s recording Spice Box, is permanently settled in Istanbul, which made the whole idea even more attractive.

In October, 2011 on our first night in Istanbul, Sinan took us to a fish restaurant where his friends were playing Fasil, a popular style of in classical music commonly sung with friends and family. We were there to pick a few songs for the project.

At the next table, a group of old friends were singing along vigorously and it was fun energy.

We selected 3 Fasil songs. The first one, Beyoglunda Gezersin, is about a lovely playful girl who is hanging out in Beyoglu, one of the municipalities of Istanbul. This area includes Istiklal Street, whose side streets are booming with night life, Taksim Square, and the Tünel area with its music shops and steep streets going down to the harbor.


Fun time at the Cümbüs music shop, Metin Guler playing Turkish mey

Usküdar is another municipality on the Asian side of Istanbul, across from the Bosphorus Straight. The meaning of the song title, Usküdara’ Gideriken (going to Usküdar), our second choice, was challenging for us. Larry and I tried to figure out why on earth one would pick up a handkerchief from a muddy street in Usküdar and put a piece of Turkish Delight in it.

Larry and Ling
Larry and Ling wondering why you would pick up a dirty hankerchief.

Luckily one of our gracious hosts in town, Beste, explained to me that when a young lady went for a walk with her parents, she would drop her handkerchief when she saw the young man she liked in order to get his attention. Beste said her grandfather brought a piece of Turkish Delight wrapped in a handkerchief when he proposed to her grandmother.

Sinan, Göksel, Ling, and Mark

Yar Saç Larin (my love has curly hair), our third Fasil song choice, took us to the home of a famous movie star and musician, Göksel Arsoy. After Sinan’s introduction describing our project, he agreed to license us the copyright for his uncle Yesari Asim Arsoy’s composition with its catchy refrain, "O darling, my heart is a violin, when do we meet, when when…"

Our recording engineer, Hakan at the AEC Stüdyo, a music teacher during the day, was a valuable source for the proper sequences of the songs. He graciously added his beautiful voice to the choruses, leaving Mark at the control board.

Chorus of Sinan Ling & Hakan

In Istanbul, there is always time to drink tea and play a beautiful tune: Sinan plays rebab and Necmettin Ozbekkangay plays the venerable old ney.

We visited Sinan’s friend Feridun at his instrument shop in the Sultan Ahmed neighborhood, near the Blue Mosque. He made me a beautiful supurde ney that I used for the two classical compositions we chose from Sinan’s teaching repertoire. There were many interesting instruments in Feridun’s shop, like this oud with a fish skin sound board and a beautiful old ney and rebab.

Fish Skin Oud
Sinan playing the fish skin Oud


Sinan plays the yalli-tambura

For the 2nd classical piece, Hijaz Saz Semai, Sinan plays a soulful introduction on bowed yalli tambura

We wanted to feature some of the folkloric music encountered in Turkey and were excited to have Mehmet Yazicioglu perform a song from the Black Sea on his kamanche, Torul, set in fast ⅞. The lyrics refer to dance, forbidden love and the natural elements of sand, sun and clouds.

Mehmet warming up at the AEC Stüdyo.

We also recorded a piece from the Ushak province in the Aegean region (western central area) of Turkey featuring the baglama (saz), a Turkish folkloric instrument which Larry has been studying there for years: Otme Bulbul, (don’t sing for me, nightingale, for there is no happiness in my garden).

Larry secret garden
Larry at the Secret Garden

In a stroke of luck, our dear friend, clarinetist Samuel Atchley, has also settled in Istanbul and was in town. He joined us for the recording of two Turkish Rom songs, Kara Gözlü Çingenem (my dark skinned Roman girl, I love you so much) set in 9/8, and Bu Fasulye, set in 2/4. We performed these songs on our last night in town at the Eski Cambaz restaurant, on Istiklal Street.

Larry, Sami, Ling Shien, and Mark at Eski Cambaz Restaurant

Wanting to reflect the far reaches of the Ottoman Empire, we recorded an old raqs sharqi piece from Syria, Raqset Bint al Arab, with Larry. We then added a Palestinian debke medley and a Lebanese folk song, Jaddelee, as well as pieces from the Mahgreb in North Africa. These pieces included: Path to Freedom, Free Karachi, and Hawebnawita, praising the beautiful girls and the olive crop of the Tunisian Island of Jarzis.   

I still found time to study Turkish folk dance with Naci Songur, who plays in a military band with Sinan. We went to their rehearsal place in Asia several times. It had been to a hunting pavilion in the days when it was surrounded by nature. With the sound of 3 zurnas and a trumpet, 12 male singers, 4 percussionists and Naci on the big big drum called a Kös , the Istanbul Historical Music Ensemble provides a listening experience! When all of them are playing, the sound is full and well balanced, all the male voices are perfectly blended, and the rhythms can be very intricate and yet powerful.

After hours, Nagi and Ling going over the line dance sequence




Nagi’s students in the Zeytinburnu Kultur Center

Naci teaches Turkish folkloric dance at the Zeytinburnu Culture Center. It was nice to see people of all ages having fun learning the traditional dances of their country.

His son, a talented percussionist, plays for the folkloric dance show at the Hodjapasha Culture Center, an ancient hammam remodeled into an intimate concert venue. It is around the corner from the best Turkish Delight store we have encountered.

After numerous attempts to find a place where the music wouldn’t be deafeningly loud, we finally scored and heard an excellent Roman band at the Feraye, off Istiklal Street. I wished they could have played for ever. We enjoyed visiting Berkant his cozy music shop, Bilge Music, in the Tünel area. He teaches Turkish music fundamentals to anyone who is interested. All in all, it was nice to see that traditional music and dance is still alive and well in Turkey, and it was fun to learn about the Turkish people through their songs.

More Photos


Hakan in the red tie, is the recording engineer.


Ling in the park next to Taksim Square


Ling and Mark

Ling and Mark at the Eski Cambaz Restaurant


Ling and Samuel play at the Eski Cambaz Restaurant



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  1. Sally Kiefer

    Aug 20, 2015 - 12:08:41

    I really enjoyed reading about your jaunts around Istanbul. What an amazing place with deep, beautiful music and warm people. And, you are a great storyteller, Ling Shien!

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